Rewriting History: What's Next As Hits The Bible, Vikings Change The Cable Network's Course
The Bible | Photo Credits: Joe Alblas/History
The Bible and Vikings made History last month in more ways than one. Both the religious miniseries and the period drama helped the channel ascend to the No. 1 spot among cable networks during March. That means less than a year after Hatfields & McCoys launched History into the scripted world, the channel is now three-for-three with original dramas.
History has come a long way from the days when it was mostly known for running old-fashioned documentaries. Back in the early 2000s, the network pulled in respectable ratings for shows like Dead Men's Secrets and specials on such topics as Abraham Lincoln, the Titanic and the Mayflower — but it hardly created buzz.
Brent Montgomery, an executive producer of History's Pawn Stars, was a cameraman at the channel during that time and remembers one particularly dry assignment: shooting footage for an hour-long program about shovels. "I thought, 'OK, that's interesting, what are we doing the rest of the day?'" he says. "It was all shovel. The shovel had a pretty interesting background, but it could have been summed up in three minutes, as opposed to an hour."
By 2006, the channel was losing viewers, and its overreliance on World War II documentaries had become a punch line (some called it "the Hitler channel"). "It took a while to get away from those old stereotypes," says Dirk Hoogstra, executive vice president of development and programming.
Nancy Dubuc — now president of entertainment and media at A+E Networks, where she also oversees A&E and Lifetime — became the channel's boss in 2007 and made some quick moves. "Nancy really believed that History had the potential to bring in new viewers with more entertainment-focused, character-driven shows," Hoogstra says. Two of the most popular episodes of Modern Marvels, about ice road trucking and logging technologies, inspired the hits Ice Road Truckers and Ax Men.
Then came signature series Pawn Stars, Swamp People and American Pickers. Montgomery says the Pawn Stars' blue-collar historians were the perfect draw for History's predominantly male audience. "People want to learn and be entertained simultaneously," he adds. "History has a wide and deep enough brand that they can do both."
Dubuc says History's "monstrous" growth between 2009 and 2013 (when viewership mushroomed by 100 percent) "proved to us that the channel has power well beyond what we could even imagine." In 2012, History was the No. 4 basic cable network in its target demographic (adults 25-54) — behind only ESPN, USA and TBS.
Looking to grow even more, History decided to tackle scripted fare. "We long dreamed of playing in that ball game," Dubuc says. "But if we were going to do it, we were going to do it to win." Hatfields & McCoys had been pitched by executive producer Leslie Greif around Hollywood for years, but after History signed on, the six-hour miniseries (starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton) finally became real — and a smash. Last spring, it made History the first cable channel to beat the broadcasters as the No. 1 network for an entire week, and it later won five Emmys.
History isn't done with Hatfields yet. TV Guide Magazine has learned that Greif will executive produce the upcoming reality show Hatfields & McCoys: White Lightning for the channel. The unscripted show will follow modern-day descendants Jim McCoy and Mark Hatfield as they come together to launch a legal moonshine business. Here's how History describes the show: "With over 100 years of tradition, original family recipes and 21st century ingenuity, these clans will attempt to put aside their differences long enough to brew up a white lightning business."